On Web Searches That Brought You Here: A.R. Ammons, Rihanna, Quadraphonic Sound

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a poem is a walk summary. This search query found my post on A.R. Ammons’ magnificent essay on the phenomenology of poetry. Ammons’ observations on poetry apply equally to music: “What we want to see a poem do is to become itself, to reach as nearly perfect a state of self-direction and self-responsibility as can be believably represented. We want that for people too.” My post is here.

dialogue between me and singer in English. This search query is in reference to one of my most read blog posts—a Ventrilo-Dialogue with Rihanna. In this (fictional) conversation we discuss the voice and other things. My post is here.

what happened to quadraphonic. This search query found my post on quadraphonic sound. Why didn’t it last, you ask? “Was it just too expensive and cumbersome?  Was it because its various formats were incompatible with one another?  Or did folks somehow collectively decide that stereo was good enough?” My post is here.

Freestyle: On Sounding Real And Sounding Fake

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A keyboardist-composer friend at work, BJ, was talking to me about some sampled string libraries she had recently been auditioning. “They sound incredible” she said, in reference to Vienna Strings. “But the thing is, if you don’t understand the idiom of the instrument you’re writing for, it’s not going to be believable.” I nodded and told her about a South African musician I once encountered in a Brooklyn studio who built (in minutes) a lush zulu pop song arrangement using the most unremarkable MIDI sounds. “It’s almost as if your ear can be tricked when you hear something done well” I said to BJ. “That reminds me” she replied, “there’s this guy on YouTube who has a video showing how make your string arrangements sound super realistic.”

BJ’s comment about the distinction between musical technology and musical idiom got me thinking about my own work and about what gets my attention when I’m listening to music. I’ve spent a fair amount of time privately fretting over sounds—whether I’ve made them, sampled them, or found them as synthetic presets. For a while I was convinced that only real acoustic sounds were worthy of working with. I guess that reflects my training as a musician and its emphasis on sound Quality. But electronic music making complexified the situation. I’ve played and made electronic sounds that people think are acoustic, and I’ve encountered electronic sounds that are as enchanting as acoustic ones. The music software on my laptop has brought the Uncanny Valley concept front and center, and to some degree, leapt over it altogether. My encounters with electronic musical sound had me thinking about idiom too. If you pick up a music magazine or explore YouTube instructional videos, an ongoing theme is how make your electronic music more realistic—how to make it sound more like, well, acoustic music. You see it with how producers program drum tracks, or how they arrange a virtual string section. There is an art to this mimicking the acoustic. But the most compelling musics create their own idioms: idiomatic ways of playing it, listening to it, and understanding it. Who says acoustic real-time music has to remain the gold standard against which all others are compared? Some musics should be unrealistic, impossible constructions not possible by any other means.

Back to my conversation with BJ: sometimes your strings should sound real, but sometimes they should sound fake.

Better

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How to get better? is a question I think about when I’m playing music and something doesn’t go as I had planned or assumed it would. An errant note, a momentary lapse of concentration, a dropped stick, a shaker that goes flying out of my hand (yes, it happened once), noticing my timekeeping dragging, or the most fascinating—a perceptual thing where suddenly the beat isn’t where I assumed it was, where I hear the rhythm as if someone took away its downbeat and now I’m momentarily unable to get my timing bearings. In all these situations my first thought—after I’ve recovered and realized that no one else noticed anything—is how I can get better. Thinking about how to improve one’s performance is the first step to figuring out how to do it, and the key is to unpack the elements of whatever didn’t go as planned.

Here’s an example: it turns out that a half-hit marimba note (a G) is the far edge of a triad that happens in the middle of a passage of triads—C minor, A-flat major, G minor—that goes by in a blur. This blur has been carrying me on its own momentum as the music goes along, and my hands can easily play these triads in sequence. But my hands have been getting by not by thinking of the triads as chords per se, but as shapes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; when I’m playing a keyboard, it’s always shapes before chords for me. (This is probably because I first learned to play by ear.) Knowing the chords as shapes allows my hands to breeze through them at speed without my needing to think much about the passing moment. It just kind of happens, over and over again and almost always perfectly—except when something goes wrong, like half-hitting one note (that G). This happens occasionally because a micro-hesitation has inserted itself into what I thought was my hands’ seamless knowing. Knowing the chords as shapes serves me well 98 percent of the time, but this intuitive sensing isn’t infallible: two percent of the time my hands are confused. One night I look down at my hands traversing the chords and think: What is all this? Suddenly the chord shapes look truly odd. (How do musicians remember music at an instrument, and what is this remembering based upon?)

The next step to improvement is to slow down the passage and practice it so that its blur becomes a series of discreet frames—like an animated flip book, examined one page at a time. As I slowed down the passage I reminded myself that in addition to being shapes, triads are chords. It was an awkward moment because my hands care only about the flow-feel of the notes, and here I was trying to talk to them analytically. Just watch when you go from the C minor to the A-flat major because you’re moving the G up a semitone but keeping the C and E-flat…I practiced the passage slower and then slower still, while superimposing some conscious knowing onto my flow-happy, shape-focused hands—Heads up guys, that’s all I’m saying. At one point I practiced the passage so slow that it was no longer a passage, no longer a shape. Now my hands’ chatter was finally muted and the triads became like a notated musical example stretched out on a page before me, with the half-hit errant G note circled in red pen and an arrow pointing to its neighbors. The passage was never that difficult, but somewhere along the way of playing it over and over, I lost sight of what it is. Now when I arrive at the moment in performance, my hands get through it with a new, deliberate carefulness. It brings to mind driving on a straight road and realizing that as it curves up ahead you’ll feel a gentle centrifugal force on the car if you maintain your current speed. You know from experience that’s pointless drive fast and then have to break before the curve in the road, so you pace yourself and the drive is smoother.

I also think about how to get better when I’m recording my own music, which usually depends on improvising to get the ball rolling. Afterwards I make note of what is working and what isn’t, trying to remember very general principles that seem to be reliably producing results that I like. (If the results are good, reverse-engineer the processes that lead you to them.) Some examples of these principles:

Begin with a theme and return to it later, and again at the end. 

Start low, then move higher. 

Leave as much space as sound made. 

Focus on the resonant tail ends of the sounds (which keeps you thinking about leaving space). 

Do more free rhythm stuff. 

I don’t look at these principles, but instead try to remember and implement them at my next session. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do this unconsciously. In the meantime, I keep the learning feedback loop animated by continuously re-aiming my attention at techniques that are proving their power.

Nowhere in my notes though, do I mention expressivity as something I want to improve because it’s difficult to evaluate one’s own expressivity, let alone improve it. Expression seems dependent on other general performance principles firing on all cylinders. A principle like start low, then move higher is useful because it’s a constraint I can remember, implement, and push against to try to make something happen—to make something expressive. Like this blog post’s narrow theme, what’s worked best is devising conditions under which I try to make something happen, to make something a little better than it turned out the last time I tried.

Curating The Week: Free Jazz, Voice, Burial

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A short documentary about free jazz.

“Part of the creativity is in the listening.”

A brief article about how hearing the human voice is multisensory.

“We rely on a panoply of sensory experiences to navigate the medium of sound. The multisensory ensemble helps us to discuss a speaker’s emotions and feelings through the conveyance of voice, creating interior meaning through metaphor. Description of touch and other senses can illuminate voice’s deep meaning and its acoustic properties at once. Next time you hear a soft voice, reflect on the engaging feeling of softness that makes your experience so much more meaningful.”

•A video essay about the creative strategies Burial used to make his 2007 recording Untrue.

Resonant Thoughts: Jaron Lanier’s “Dawn of the New Everything” (2017)

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“When we think technology can surpass our bodies in a comprehensive way, we are forgetting what we know about our bodies and physical reality. The universe doesn’t have infinitely fine grains, and the body is already tuned in as finely as anything can ever be, when it needs to be” (49).

“The unceasing flow of tiny learning forces—pressed finger against pliant material, sensor cell in the skin exciting a neuron that signals the brain as the pressure reflects—this flow is the blood of perception” (50).

-Jaron Lanier,
Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (2017)

Resonant Thoughts: Arnold Berleant’s “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance” (1999)

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“The performer necessarily comes at the music from within…Most often the performance situation catapults a musician into a rare and unusual condition, one that reveals the basic features of experience with eloquent directness, free, at least to some extent, from the usual overlay of cultural and philosophical presuppositions that nearly always obstruct our awareness. What is this perceptual condition like?”

– Arnold Berleant, “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance”,
Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall, 1999), p. 75.